By Cameron Joseph - 11/28/12 12:29 AM EST
Two outgoing Republican senators on Tuesday introduced an alternative to the Democrats’ DREAM Act, the first detailed immigration proposal from the GOP as the party grapples with one of its most problematic issues.
The bill, introduced by retiring border-state Sens. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) and Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas), would allow undocumented immigrants brought to the United States as children to stay in the country without an expedited pathway to citizenship.
Rubio’s hesitation leaves Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) as the only current co-sponsor of the bill who will be in Congress next year — a sign of the cautious approach many Republicans are taking on the complex and politically charged issue.
Rubio, when asked whether he preferred to proceed step by step on immigration reform rather than tackle a broader bill, said, “I think there are multiple issues that should be dealt with separately, but I think they can be dealt with sequentially.”
The Kyl-Hutchison bill, called the Achieve Act, sets up a three-step visa system to allow many of those brought into the U.S. at a young age to stay in the country.
The first visa would allow those enrolled in college or the military to stay for six years. After they graduate or leave the military, they could apply for another four-year work visa. After that, they could apply for four-year visas to allow them to remain in the country legally.
Kyl acknowledged during a press conference at the Capitol that it was “doubtful” his bill would be dealt with before he and Hutchison leave office.
“We’re going to have to count on people like Sen. McCain and Sen. Rubio and others who have an interest in this issue next year, because neither of us are going to be here,” Kyl said.
Republicans are looking to Rubio as a leader on the issue of immigration, and Hutchison called Rubio’s involvement “very important.”
The Kyl-Hutchison bill’s broad outline is similar to a proposal Rubio worked on earlier this year. It was shelved after President Obama signed an executive order halting the deportation of some undocumented youth brought to the country illegally.
Kyl said the executive order was an example of the administration taking “the law into its own hands” and “violating [the] oath of office.”
Rubio blamed the president’s order for delaying progress on immigration reform. Still, he sounded optimistic a deal could be reached next year.
“We want to take some more input now in light of the president’s deferred action plan to see how those things mesh together, because that’s now a reality,” he told The Hill.
“I hope this [Kyl-Hutchison] effort starts getting some traction. But if it doesn’t, by the end of the year, given all of the other major issues floating around, I think we’re in a good place to have something ready by early in the next Congress.”
Hutchison and Kyl both said they decided to introduce the bill now to “get the ball rolling” on some form of legislation to aid illegal immigrants who were raised in the U.S. and “know no other country.”
“We’re not saying this is the end-all, be-all,” Hutchison said.
The Texas senator said she understood why Rubio had not signed on to support the bill.
“I think that he is not ready to have a final product at this time, but he is very supportive of what we’re doing,” Hutchison said.
“We hope he will take the ball next year and lead the effort.”
Kyl and Hutchison stressed their bill would not allow anyone to move ahead of others applying for citizenship. Rather, an individual could remain in the U.S. while applying through existing programs for citizenship — a significant difference from Senate Democrats’ proposals.
“It doesn’t give them a special preference before those who have waited in line for years to get into the citizenship track,” Hutchison said.
The senators’ move signals that Republicans might seek to push immigration reform in a piecemeal fashion rather than as a comprehensive overhaul of the system, as many Democrats want.
Hutchison said her experience working on comprehensive reform with McCain and the late Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) during President George W. Bush’s second term led her to conclude that a wide-ranging bill is not the “best way to approach” immigration.
Hutchison and Kyl said they’d been working on the bill for approximately a year and its introduction had nothing to do with the GOP’s weak performance among Latino voters in the recent election.
Kyl emphasized that the bill is not a “Republican push on immigration” but rather his and Hutchison’s own effort.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has not weighed in.
“He’ll review it, but he hasn’t said yes or no on this or any of the other [immigration bills]. That’s a next-year thing,” McConnell spokesman Don Stewart told The Hill. “Beyond that, he hasn’t picked a bill or anything like that.”
Hutchison and Kyl said they’ve briefed their Senate replacements.
Kyl pointed out that Sen.-elect Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) “was very forward-leaning on trying to get comprehensive immigration reform” passed in the House.
Flake told The Hill that Congress needs to “realistically and humanely deal with this issue.”
“I’ve not studied it yet, but this bill seems to be a good starting point for discussion,” he said in a statement.
Hutchison described Sen.-elect Ted Cruz (R-Texas) as “very interested” in the bill. Cruz could not be reached for comment.